You probably remember Ralphie’s little brother Randy from A Christmas Story, still a favorite holiday film. In one droll scene, Randy’s mother bundles him against the cold in a red, one-piece snowsuit: the kind popular in the 1930s. Randy’s snowsuit is so tight and confining that he cannot lower his arms. In fact, a flipped-over turtle can turn right side up easier than Randy. Flat on his back in the snow, Randy yells “I can’t get up Ralphie! I can’t get up, Raaaalphieeee!”
Winter clothes don’t confine us so much now. Skiwear padded with ultrathin hi-loft synthetics frees downhillers for graceful movements. But I noticed a different kind of insulation on the slopes the other day; this one electronic that, in its own way, restricts and limits us more than bulky old clothes.
Until recently, skiers could count on two things to make this kind of play satisfying and exceptional: dizzying release onto solitary downhill runs that alternated with brief, convivial chairlift rides uphill. Improved technology takes the credit for making skiing easier and more spontaneous today. But technology takes some blame for skiing’s social decline. I’m talking about omnipresent earbuds that pipe in the music that wraps skiers in an isolated aural space. The Montana ski journalist Drew Pogge calls this an “audio cocoon.”
This social isolation works against a basic aspect that formerly urged the sport toward conviviality. Four-person chairlifts pack on people often unacquainted with each other. They share a seat and rub elbows. Proximity encourages skiers to exchange small talk and short stories too. Before it’s time to unload, they share opinions about where to find the best snow, tales of funny crack ups, and useful stories about the weather. (A ski lift may be the one place where weather chat never turns boring.) Family news flows easily—of the daughter heading to college, of the son’s wrestling team trip, and of the cousins from Cleveland who will join them at the hill.
Skiers, a diverse lot who jostle together amiably, tell where they’re from and what they do. I once met the jolly fellow from Pennsylvania who wrangles Punxsutawney Phil each Groundhog Day; I asked him a million questions including one about his top hat. And I also met a woman who claimed she spent an evening talking to the future president of Cyprus about sleep apnea. That one left me speechless.
Our favored ski hill, not far from the international border, hosts its quota of Canadians. On the lift, they share stories of crossing at the Peace Bridge, compare currency exchange rates, cackle about Toronto’s former misbehaving mayor, and wonder about the plan to divert the Niagara and drain the American side of the Falls. They also tell political jokes foreign in content but familiar in intent: “Prime Minister Harper acts like Canadians are stupid,” one partisan rider said, “and if he gets a majority, v prove him right.”
Earbuds inhibit free exchange like this. Physical intimacy remains on the chairlift, but when everyone’s wearing earphones no one hears an encouraging word. There is only an isolating, compelling, wraparound sound. Oh, the music is good when it’s piped into the ski helmet, personalizing the soundscape. Cruising sunny frozen meadows to Strauss waltzes or skiing the bumps with Lacuna Coil driving the beat can enhance the musicality of skiing—enriching the rhythms of the sport. But the acoustic bubble best enables private pleasure and favors interior, personal experience. Earbuds stop conversation cold. Skiers who tune in tune out of the social side of skiing; insulated and cocooned this way, they miss attunement itself—a vital communal component of play.